A brief survey of Latin American drama cannot do justice to the more than five-hundred-year history of such a vast body of work, even if a skeptic might make short shrift of much of the dramatic literature of Latin America. From the Southern Cone to the Latino communities of North America, from the earliest mystery plays used by the Spaniards to convert and assimilate the indigenous peoples to the drawing-room comedies that have plagued serious critics and enthralled huge audiences throughout the past century, from the derivative experimentalism of arcane ensembles to the educational and agitprop methods of hundreds of revolutionary groups—all have made an impressive mark on theatrical performance.
Because of the historical importance of unscripted work (such as pre-Columbian religious rituals, colonial pageants, and “folk” theater) and of unpublished works of which only the gist and impact have been recorded, many recent scholars of Latin American theater study more than just texts that have been preserved as dramatic scripts and take into account a great deal of anthropological and even archaeological evidence to describe this complex and multifaceted history. Despite the undeniable importance of factual compilations, one must recognize the difficulty of summarizing trends and quoting names and examples too selectively, to the exclusion of many, and it is this challenge that is undertaken in this limited essay.
This summary includes only the theater of Spanish-speaking countries in the Americas, to the exclusion of Brazil and of the French- or English-speaking areas of the continent that are now considered part of Latin America. The Hispanic theater of the United States, however, is included, as a part of the historical continuum of the same linguistic and cultural area.